I wonder what other people do when they’re feeling unsettled? I usually go for a ride on my bicycle, peddling away any pent up angst or uncertainties, the wind in my hair and – with luck – no bugs in my teeth. Even a short ride usually leaves me feeling cheerful and more able to cope with whatever it was that sent me out on the road in the first place.

But winter in Perth can really put a spanner in the works as far as that goes. Days of drizzle and cold winds tend not to inspire me to gear up and head out – and somehow the exercise bike sitting in the corner of my games room doesn’t have much appeal as an alternative. Staring at the wall or the pool table while I pedal and the dog tries to chew my feet simply doesn’t compare to the open road.

So last unsettled week I just kept busy with work, chores and errands – until I found myself pulling in at a local cafe en route home one day. It being that time of day, I ordered something to eat, although I was slightly bemused to find myself out for lunch – alone and on a rainy afternoon. Neither of these things is my idiom – I tend to enjoy lunching out al fresco – which indicates warmer weather – and usually in company.

To add to my bemusement, my spontaneous solo-lunch venue selection was the South African shop a couple of kilometres from my house. This is not somewhere I’d lunched before, although I had been in for coffee and cake with friends a few times. So why here? Why now? And why did I feel so relaxed and comfortable about being there? Probably just a surge of nostalgia at the end of what feels like an endlessly long week, I thought.

Whatever it was, sitting there surrounded by sounds and smells from my childhood felt safe and comfortable. The background chitchat in a combination of English and Afrikaans was relaxing and the vetkoek smelled wonderful – and tasted even better. I’ve never tried making it, but vetkoek is essentially deep fried bread dough, drained and filled with some or other tasty filling. It may not sound too appealing, but I can assure you that it’s remarkably moreish, real comfort food. The outside is crisp and not at all oily and the inside is soft and fluffy, like hot bread. I chose a curried lamb mince filling (traditional) and enjoyed every finger-licking morsel of it.

The serious business of eating dealt with, I sat back with my latte and thought about how I was feeling. I’d arrived tired and slightly directionless and had ended up feeling as though I’d been wrapped in a warm snuggly blanket, looked after and cared about – even though, in reality, none of those things had actually occurred. The staff had made me welcome, certainly, and the service had been efficient and pleasant – but that was all. Nevertheless it was, well, nice to sit there – surrounded by hints from my past.

taste of nostalgia_august14I love Australia and wouldn’t swap my life here for quids, but tiredness and stress do strange things to people. No doubt I was experiencing no more than a sentimental connection to the simplicity of my childhood and to Africa, which is part of my core identity. But sitting there, with a taste of Africa still on my lips I felt at ease. As I gazed absently at the chalkboard  and started reading the names of places I’ve been to and through in the past, the words I-AM-FROM-AFRICA made me smile. Yes, I thought, yes I am.

 

From time to time I catch a glimpse of something or someone that triggers unexpected associations, often conjuring up odd and unusual trains of thought that stay with me from minutes to days. Sometimes this happens when I’m driving.

On the way to work I occasionally play traffic-tag with another vehicle, passing and being passed by it a number of times. Usually something makes the tag vehicle memorable. This time it was a little more unusual than average. Initially I didn’t realise that I’d somehow become part of a funeral cortege, at least not until I passed the glass-sided vehicle for the second time. Initially only part of my brain registered the unusual shape – and promptly went off to hunt through my internal database for a reference point to make sense of what it had noticed.

The hearse itself was quite tall at the back and had a lot of glass on display. The overall impression I was left with was somewhere between a Popemobile and a glass dome on wheels. The glimpse of a white coffin covered in flowers provided just enough extra visual input so that, by the time I passed the vehicle for the second time, the closest match inner-me had come up with was – of all things – Snow White.  Apparently that little part of my brain that hunts for associations and connections logged the glass bubble and floral tributes and my storage banks went straight to cross-referencing Disney movies.

snow whiteThe image of Snow White in a Popemobile-hearse, driving around Perth in search of her prince, stayed with me all day. It was quite a persistent little meme and was still lurking in the recesses when I found myself watching Billy Connolly’s Big Send Off on TV that night.  Having recently been diagnosed with both prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease, Connolly has produced a programme that examines a wide range of issues relating to death and funerals. The topic was handled surprisingly sensitively, although with his usual trademark humour – including a duet with Eric Idle.

The thing I found oddest in the programme was a drive-through funeral parlour. The idea seems to be that, instead of having a formal viewing of the deceased in a chapel – which I find pretty odd to start with, the body can be laid out in what is effectively a shop window. People can then drive up – as to a take-away food outlet – to view the deceased from the comfort of their vehicle. There’s no need to get out of the vehicle at all – you can just sit there, contemplate the display, and then sign the guest book before driving off. Next please. A tidy, hands-clean sort of approach, I guess.

drive thru funerals1

Connolly also attended a six-day international funeral directors convention & expo in Austin (Texas). He went along to have a look at some of the products that he might end up using at some stage. Coffins of every sort, from cardboard to oak, with or without silk lining and ornate handles and optional original artwork, were on display. They provided a real eye-opener as to just how much a bereaved person can be fleeced for by less-than-scrupulous vendors.

Then there was the mushroom burial suit – a full body suit that’s embroidered with threads infused with mushroom spores. These work with in conjunction with an externally applied liquid spore compound to decompose the body within the suit. What wasn’t clear was just how long it would take for the mushrooms to do their work. I rather like the idea of the body being recycled this way, although I did wonder about what happens to the residue – and to the mushrooms – afterwards.

And then there were hearses – big, small, showy, motorbikes with sidecars and… the Snow White Popemobile! It exists! I had started to suspect that I’d halfway invented the vehicle, inner-me elaborating wildly once it had latched onto the idea. But there it was, in amongst all the other snazzy vehicles. It didn’t actually have a glass dome – (inner-me did invent that bit) – but other than that it was fairly Snow White-ish.

Ford Cardinal-Hearse Coleman-Milne

I wonder if the availability of this style of hearse indicates a shift in how society is starting to view death. Perhaps it’s just a variation on the drive-through viewing option. I’m not sure how I feel about that, having been socially conditioned to avoid public displays of – well – pretty much any sort, really. But I can see that being ‘allowed’ to grieve – to acknowledge death and grief publicly – could help people to deal with loss and to move forward with their lives. It might also enable others to manage their response to the grief that friends and acquaintances experience, without feeling awkward or inappropriate.

I’ve been told a number of stories of how people will go out of their way to avoid contact with someone who has experienced the death of a loved one, almost as though it’s contagious. Perhaps having death on display, whether in a Snow White hearse or a drive-through funeral parlour, might start to move society away from this cultural death denial. It might allow death to be more openly acknowledged as part of life. On the other hand, it might simply be yet another example of a society obsessed with portraying itself as colourfully and noisily as it can at all times.

Either way, I do rather like the idea of Snow White being driven around town, actively seeking out her prince rather than waiting for him in the woods surrounded by sad bunnies and bambies with big eyes.

 

The title of this post is partly plagiarism at work, I’m afraid. So, before going any further, I’d like to offer both my thanks and apologies to Joan Anderson. Although I tried really hard, this particular phrase resonated so strongly that I couldn’t come up with anything else that meant the same things to this particularly ‘unfinished woman.’

At various times over the years I’ve come across writing that’s spurred me to muse on aspects of my personal development. Last week I picked up Joan’s memoir (A year by the sea – thoughts of an unfinished woman) and was swept up in her uncomplicated prose and superbly crafted storytelling. Reading about her year of self-discovery was in many ways like reading parts of my own story and those of many of my female friends – women of a certain age (no longer young, but definitely not yet old) who are finally grasping that our journeys are anything but over.

We’re living longer, we’re working longer, and many of us are fitter and stronger than our mothers were at similar ages.  With all of that is the emerging realisation that we’re ‘unfinished’, that we’re works in progress meandering through life towards new understandings of who we are, what we want and where we’re headed.

Why is it that so many of us only come to realise that we need to look after ourselves and our own development when we’re into our 50’s? Will our daughters fare better, I wonder? Will seeing us making these journeys help them to understand sooner that they don’t need to live their lives through the scripts of others?